Parliament is supposed to “debate” Budget 2012 next week. But how many people see that what has taken place over the last 30 years, and what will likely take place over the next two weeks, is not a debate at all?
Most Singaporeans seem to think the Budget debate is a chance to beg Ah Gong (ie the Finance Minister) to give them money to support their pet causes– anything from the arts to the green movement– while businesses will lobby for tax incentives and handouts. Already AWARE has asked for money to support women’s causes, while SME’s have lobbied for handouts.
I expect both PAP and WP MP’s to propose $100 “cuts” so they can get their 10 mins of airtime to make impassioned speeches on the plight of businesses, consumers, retirees, single mothers, NSmen, etc in an effort to move Ah Gong to grant their wishes.
While these pleas are important, such pleas do not a Budget debate make.
Let’s be clear. First and foremost, the Govt is coming to Parliament for approval of its spending plans for the next fiscal year. The purpose of a Budget debate should be to ask, why is the Govt proposing to spend these amounts? How can we justify this spending?
Why do we spend so many billions on defense? Why do we need these weapon systems that the Govt is proposing? What cheaper alternatives are there? Do we need such a large army? Etc.
Ditto for other ministries. Why do we need to spend all these money? Are there any big black holes in the budget we need the govt to explain?
And for the civil service as a whole: do we need such a large civil service? Why do we have so many stat boards? Each one of them has a CEO, deputy CEO, a whole management team and board of directors, and a full complement of functions– HR, Finance, IT, etc. That’s a lot of costs they have to recover from the public. Why can’t we fold some of them together?
These are the kinds of questions that should be asked, that the Govt should be challenged on and be made to answer.
In fact, in other countries, spending plans will be vigorously challenged, and the Budget will not be passed until the Govt accommodates Parliament’s demands for changes (eg cuts in certain ministries, more tax breaks, reduced deficit, more spending in certain areas (eg healthcare, education) etc).
In other words, a Budget debate is really a time to examine and control the cost of Govt, and not just a pleading session with Ah Gong.
Money is finite, demands are not. When MP’s ask for more tax breaks, more grants, more subsidies, etc. they have to propose cuts to spending in other areas, not just ask Ah Gong to give and give. What’s the point of making impassioned pleas to Ah Gong if MP’s are not willing to cut significant amounts from Defence, Foreign Affairs, or other ministries? In fact, not proposing such cuts reduces MP’s pleas to mere showmanship. Because you are not using your power, as an MP and as a Parliament, to direct the Govt to fulfill your voter’s wishes. Instead, you are just hoping Santa Claus will grant your wishes.
In my view, that’s not what we elect MP’s to do for us, and thus you’ve not really done your duty in debating the Budget.
No doubt the Opposition is in no position to block the Budget or force changes at this point in time. They may also not have the resources to comprehensively examine the Budgets of every Ministry and to be able to debate intelligently on each line item.
But it can make a start by selecting one or two ministries and questioning their spending plans thoroughly, and thus signal to Govt that it will up its game. Hopefully, this will lay the groundwork for future opposition mp’s so that when the Opposition is a force to be reckoned with in future, no Budget will be passed until every single $$ is properly justified.